19 years old, Challenge & Marathon are nationally known

Myra Schoen
Special to The Black Mountain News

Some 400 runners are expected for the 19th annual Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge on Saturday, organizers said.

Runners are expected to face wind, snow, subfreezing temperatures and treacherous footing, whether they reach Black Mountain Gap at an elevation of 5,340 feet (the marathoners) or the top of Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet (the Challenge runners).

In a New York Times article in 2005, writer David Howard dubbed the Marathon-Challenge “sky running,” calling them a combination of “ultramarathons, trail running and adventure racing - combining tests of endurance with mercurial climates and challenging landscapes.” Backpacker Magazine named the event one of the top 10 toughest races in the nation.

Nowhere on the East Coast do “sky runners” face a greater challenge than the conquest of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the United States east of the Mississippi. The mountain presents three climatic zones – Southern Hardwood, Northern Hardwood, and Spruce Fir Forest - that encapsulate three diverse zones analogous to the geographical areas from North Carolina to Lake Superior, said Wendell Begley, one of the race’s two founders.

The weather is wildly unpredictable, and the icy trails often hazardous, Begley said. This year’s recent super-storm dropped 66 inches of snow on the top of the mountain, where wind can easily top 100 mph. Challenge runners heading downhill off the mountain face 20 miles of slippery, steep incline.

Last year’s winner, 26-year-old Daniel Hamilton of Chattanooga, Tennessee, clocked in at four hours and 55 minutes, while most other challengers slogged their way to completion in 6-8 hours. The last runner finished in nine hours and 13 minutes.

Begley and Trent Thomas, another race founder, said some of the Challenge participants are “weekend warriors” with professional careers who enjoy dealing with harsh natural environments and uncertain weather conditions.

Begley and Trent conceived the event in the 1980s as part of the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce’s economic development committee’s plan to bring business to the area during the quiet winter months. The current format of the run debuted in 1997.

Challenge and Marathon participants start out side by side in downtown Black Mountain at an elevation of 2,360 feet. Cheering them on, said chamber executive director Bob McMurray, are “family and friends who enjoy the weekend exploring Black Mountain’s historic downtown, with its art galleries, gift and craft shops and great dining spots.”

The race brings the town lots of attention. “People love what the town exemplifies,” Begley said, “and often visit during summer, spring, and fall to hike the trails around the Valley.”

Marathon and Challenge runners visit from South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia, and as far away as Colorado, Oregon and Washington, as well as New York, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Arizona and Washington, D.C.

McMurray said the number of female competitors increases each year, with more than two dozen racing in 2015.

Checkpoints along the race routes are staffed with safety personnel and wilderness first aid workers equipped with radio communications and resupplies of water and food. Volunteer rescue organizations include the N.C. National Guard, Black Mountain Fire and Rescue, Yancey County EMS, South Toe Volunteer Fire Department, Buncombe County EMS, Black Mountain Police, Montreat Police, Blue Ridge Parkway, U.S. Forest Service and Mount Mitchell State Park.

This year’s sponsors include Black Mountain Savings Bank, Black Dome Mountain Sports, Jus’ Running, Black Mountain Fire Department, Nantahala Outdoor Center, Antifragile Physical Therapy, Stone & Christy, Attorneys, DeFeet Run, Event Mercenaries, Angry Bear Creative, Black Mountain Ale House, and The North Face.

Event proceeds benefit the Black Mountain Fire/Rescue Team, Swannanoa Valley Museum and its historic archives, and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, organizations dedicated to preserve and protect the people, history and natural environs of Western North Carolina.

An awards ceremony and banquet will take place at White Horse Black Mountain on Saturday evening.

Challenge and Marathon

nuts and bolts

Races begin: 7 a.m. Saturday at the Old Depot,

207 Sutton Ave.

Expected conditions: Cold and sunny

Expected runners: Some 400 from all over U.S.

Among states represented: CO, OR, WA, NY, AZ, MN

2015 age range: mid-20s to over 60

Challenge named: One of 10 toughest U.S. races (Backpacker Magazine)

2015 Challenge winner: Daniel

Hamilton, 4:55 hours.

Typical Challenge finisher time:

6-8 hours